Movie Review: The Debt- A Tactfully Made Remake of an Espionage Thriller That Isn’t Without its Minor Faults

Whoever thought that director John Madden (no, not the annoying and redundant football commentator) would be helming an espionage thriller about Israeli Mossad agents and the truth behind their mission to capture a famed Nazi war criminal doctor. Considering he was the man behind Shakespeare in Love, an infuriatingly overrated film that undeservedly won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan, and the laughably overdramatized Captain Corelli’s Mandolin it’s curious as to why he might have been suited for a remake of an Israeli thriller entitled The Debt. Surprisingly, however, it appears Mr. Madden’s talents putting together an intricate thriller with definite unnerving and genuine suspenseful moments are shown in this delightfully tactful film. It certainly doesn’t suffer from the well-known cast bringing an emotional resonance to their situations but the key is in how the script was written in completely disjointed fashion, which serves as the main ingredient that keeps our attention throughout the film. Granted it doesn’t have the depth or long lasting intrigue as other political mystery thrillers (Manchurian Candidate, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) but it’s an efficiently made film that isn’t preachy, tiresomely long, or, perhaps to add a backhanded compliment, too cerebral. If the film had attempted to go to a plane of political nuances, deep character arcs, or social commentary (some critics will take a leap and say it did) then it wouldn’t have been as entertaining in the hands of a director known for simplistic storytelling and familiar character dimensions. Ultimately, The Debt is a tightly made espionage thriller that effectively intrigues the viewer but doesn’t have the depth necessary to be a marveling Spy experience.

To say that it was a surprise that The Debt came out to be genuinely suspenseful on the hands of director John Madden can’t be expressed enough. This director hasn’t proven himself to be that intriguing of a storyteller (want proof? See Proof). So the conclusion can be made that he had a very good writing team that elevated the drama by drastically cutting up the plot in a non-linear fashion, a competent cast filled with experienced actors, and a cinematographer who aided in the carefully planned sequences. The screenwriting team of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman headed the adaptation of the original Israeli film and are known for their screenwriting work on Kick-Ass and X-men: First Class. However, Vaughn’s familiarity with complex plots from his directorial debut on Layer Cake serves as a strength in the presentation of The Debt. Add another screenwriter Peter Straughan who is the screenwriter on the John Le Carre Espionage film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, coming out later this year, and you have an extremely competent writing team to give you a great template to follow. All of the actors carry the film in their own right giving more than sufficient performances. However, a special recognition needs to go to Helen Mirren and Ciaran Hinds. Both of these highly accomplished actors stand out in every scene they’re in making their range of emotion seem easy. It’s also worth mentioning that the highly bland Sam Worthington isn’t exactly in his worst form in this film, which was quite surprising since he could have anchored the movie down by his lonesome. Also Danish actor Jesper Christiansen serves as a haunting antagonist with an unnerving performance delivering chilling dialogue and a blank stare. Really John Madden should be compliment for surrounding himself with a competent crew and group of actors that made the film intriguing even if it isn’t as cerebral or mind-bending as other accomplished and acclaimed Espionage thrillers.

As the end of summer blockbuster season comes we begin the transition to more serious filmmaking in the fall, which includes award contenders and a vast array of independent cinema. The Debt is one of those unfortunate to be caught in the limbo between the two distinguishable categories of films. It serves as a nice mildly thought provoking blockbuster at the end of the summer but doesn’t quite have the strengths or storytelling fortitude that most award consideration films should have. Despite having the lackluster John Madden directing the film it still comes off as a tactfully made and appropriately intriguing Spy thriller but nothing more. The talented cast and writing that accentuates the burden of carrying a lie your entire life still makes for a gripping piece of Spy drama. As a remake The Debt is a respectful turn on an original Spy thriller but doesn’t add anything to the mix that could ever make it its own respectable entity. Think of it as a less complicated, less in depth, but equally technical Munich. You always have to ask yourself: Is it ever worth re-imagining an already established film? While this remake is enjoyable the answer is usually no.

Grade: B-

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